Jefferson Montero to expose U.S. defense in DeAndre Yedlin's absence
Outside the stadium, a furious wind whistles across New Jersey. Inside, protected by the giant walls of MetLife Stadium, an Ecuadorian crowd enjoys a spectacle that seems even faster and more merciless than the wind: their team's lightning counter-attack, which cuts Haiti apart en route to a 4-0 win.
Christian Noboa distributes from the center of the field, Enner Valencia provides the focal point up front, and contrasting talents on either flank are each devastating on their day. To the right, Antonio Valencia is all thrust and power. On the other side, Jefferson Montero sprints, shimmies and turns. And every time he does it, the level of anticipation in the crowd rises.
Montero can cut a frustrating figure. As Ecuador's then-coach Reinaldo Rueda told me a few months before the 2014 World Cup, "Jefferson Montero needs to decide if he is playing for Ecuador or playing for himself." His decision-making and final ball can be disappointing. But recent performances indicate that his time with Swansea City has improved this important aspect of his game. He provided assists in both of Ecuador's past two games, as well as plenty of near misses.
He has pace, rapid acceleration, speed and a wide repertoire of tricks. He can go inside or out, constantly putting defenders in doubt with regard to where he's going to go next. For a full-back, there are few more worrying sights than Jefferson Montero running at you with pace. The U.S. right-back facing this nightmare in Seattle will be a reserve -- first-choice DeAndre Yedlin is suspended after picking up a red card against Paraguay.
When the U.S. and Ecuador met in Frisco, Texas, in a warm-up friendly just before the start of the Copa America Centenario, it was Yedlin's cross that set up the U.S.'s last-gasp winner. His athleticism could well be missed in the quarterfinal. Ecuador will look to Montero to press home an advantage against a reserve right-back. It will be one of the key matchups of the game.
Montero, 26, is a symbol of the remarkable progress that his country's football has made since he was born in 1989. The Copa America that took place that year was the first hint that something special was about to happen -- Ecuador pulled off a famous victory over Uruguay and held world champions Argentina to a draw. The big break came seven years later, however, when the current marathon format of World Cup qualification was implemented. Suddenly, Ecuador had the kind of calendar that European national teams take for granted -- regular competitive games with guaranteed income, and the chance to keep a side together and build an identity.
Previously, Ecuador had won only five World Cup qualifiers. Under the new conditions, they came close to making their World Cup debut in 1998, before qualifying in 2002 and making the second round four years later. Brazil 2014 made it three World Cups out of the past four for Ecuador. And they appear well on the way to Russia 2018 too, disproving any doubts that they are mere altitude specialists (they play their home games high up in the Andes in Quito) by deservedly winning away to Argentina in October.
In general, Ecuador's performances on the biggest stages have been disappointing. In the 2010 and 2014 World Cups they were the only South American side to fail to get out of their group. Their recent Copa America record is dismal. They made the semifinals on home ground in 1993, and advanced to the quarterfinals four years later when almost everyone sent under-strength squads. Otherwise, it has been a story of first-round eliminations.
Jefferson Montero, for his part, can look back with more pleasure than most on his tournament history with the Ecuador national team. He was the teenage star when Ecuador won their most important title so far -- a gold medal at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro. How much pleasure Montero and his compatriots will be able to glean from looking back at this year's competition may well depend on how he gets on against a reserve U.S. right-back.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.